Basic Questions

Basic Questions

This is a good point to turn to some of the basic questions that we need to keep in mind when we study the first Argonauts. What is presented here draws upon a section of the same name, which Ammerman wrote as part of his paper for the workshop. At the meeting itself, there will be the chance for the participants to take up and discuss at greater length a number of the questions listed briefly below. In order to pose the questions with a certain level of specificity, they will be formulated here in the context of what is currently known in the case of Cyprus. Again, the span of time of primary interest will be the one from 13,000 through 10,000 years ago. Much the same set of basic questions can be asked in the case of the other large offshore islands in the Mediterranean.

The focus of attention in the literature has commonly been on two main questions: what kinds of boats were used in crossing the sea and why were trips made between the mainland and the island of Cyprus. Given the lack of evidence for sea-going vessels of this age in the archaeological record, it is understandable that the archaeologist often feels uncertain and even frustrated at times. Of course, it represents a major challenge to draw upon other lines of archaeological evidence, which do date to this remote time, in an attempt to make sound inferences about the boats that were used for early voyaging. Thus, one has to be patient and avoid forcing answers to this question. In all likelihood, what was involved was not just a single kind of craft or vessel. Instead, it may be more productive to think in terms of a certain range of boats – ones taking somewhat different sizes and forms. Here it is worth recalling the range of ships that were built and used for crossing the sea in a given century of Venetian history. And over time, the Venetian ships changed as well. This too is probably happening in our case. In short, it is entirely possible that the boats that were used for making trips to Cyprus around 13,000 years ago were not the same as those in use three thousand years later. The suggestion here is that early maritime technology did not simply sit still over what amounts to a span of more than 100 human generations.

Accordingly, what we are searching for, when we turn to this basic question, is not “the boat” but instead “the boats.” And much the same would hold when it comes to the second question posed above. In fact, there were several reasons for making early voyages between the mainland and Cyprus: foraging for aquatic resources on the coasts of an island that had not witnessed previous exploitation, the collection of sea salt (the annually renewable resource that occurs on the coastal formations of aeolianite in the summer months), the stocking of the island with a new animal species such as wild boar (Aetokremnos), the procurement of lithic resources (Asprokremnos) and the relocation of those living at a settlement on the mainland to a new place on Cyprus (Klimonas). And there are other reasons, including climate change, that are worth considering as well. Again, one is not searching for “the reason” for early voyaging. The task is to think in terms of a spectrum of “reasons” for why the voyagers decided to go to sea at the times when they did.

Moreover, there is a need to broaden the scope of the basic questions that we ask: that is, to move beyond the tradition of focusing rather narrowly on the two questions mentioned above. Indeed, the other basic questions are of no less interest, even though most of them have yet to receive the proper attention they deserve. Toward this end, what is put forward below is a list of some of the other basic questions to consider. This list should be regarded only as a short working one. It main purpose is to serve as a point of departure for the discussions that will take place at the meeting in Reggio Calabria. No hierarchy of significance is implied by the sequence in which the questions are listed. Numbers have not been assigned to them for this reason as well. What matters more than the answer to any one specific question is for us to start thinking about this set of basic questions as a group.

How many trips were made to a given offshore island during the course of a year? In the case of Cyprus, some of us now lean toward at least one or two crossings each year. Is this too much? Or too little, as one approaches the time around 10,000 years ago, when obsidian blades from Anatolia, as seen at the site of Akanthou, were moving actively from Anatolia to the north coast of Cyprus?

How many people took part in a voyage? Only a few of the people in a given society? Possibly just five to eight individuals all with experience and skills in going to sea? Or else a fair number of people in a given community? In the latter case, one would be dealing with the movement of a number of boats over the sea all at the same time.

Who built the boats? And who had the opportunity to use them? Recall that boats – even small ones – are usually kept (most of the time) on or near the shoreline and a boat calls for certain amount of attention over the course of a year.

Who had the experience and skills to make a successful voyage? Only a few of the people belonging to a given society? For instance, those who spent most of their time doing activities on or near the coast? Or alternatively a much wider range of people, including those who lived in the interior? In other words, is there evidence in support of the idea that those who lived at early settlements in the interior on Cyprus (for example, Klimonas or Shillourokambos) took an active part in voyaging?

How long did it take to make a voyage from the mainland to Cyprus? Less than a week (based on paddling or rowing)? Less than a day (based on sailing)?

Were voyages made on a seasonal basis? Clearly, it made good sense for voyages to be undertaken at those times of the year with good weather (the summer months). Recall what Hesiod has to say about seafaring on a seasonal basis in the ancient Greek world (on the seasonality of voyaging in the case of the Vitiaz Straits, see also Harding 1967).

How risky was it to make a crossing in a small boat? Again, this would depend upon the season of the year as well as the degree of caution that the voyagers exercised in judging the conditions of the sea and the weather before they decided to go ahead with a voyage. If they were indeed quite cautious (as in the case of voyagers in small boats in the Pacific), voyaging does not have to be seen as an extreme sport (at least for voyagers with experience). At the same time, things can always happen out at sea. And when they do, one finds oneself in a vulnerable position. Among coastal foragers, there would have been a living memory of those who went to sea and did not come back.

There is one last question that we need to consider. It concerns two terms that we commonly use in discourse on the first Argonauts: seafaring and seafarer. The former appears, by the way, in the title of the Workshop itself. But are they really the right terms to use for what we are dealing with? Or do they have connotations – that is, a way of life where a person spends a fair amount of time at sea and where seafaring represents the main activity that one does during the year -- that are inappropriate in light of the basic questions we are asking. Does it make good sense use these two terms in talking about those who may have spent only about 5 per cent their time in a given year out at sea? In short, what was the person (who engaged in such a part-time activity) actually doing the rest of the year? This may represent a better label for such a person. Here it is worth noting that terms that are more neutral in character -- voyage, voyaging and voyager – have been consistently used for this reason in formulating the questions posed above. This is a matter that we can discuss at the meeting.

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